Debate: Prescribed Burns in the Linville Gorge Wilderness?

15 Nov 13
Debate: Prescribed Burns in the Linville Gorge Wilderness?
Is a prescribed burn the preferred tonic for the Linville Gorge Wilderness? Illustration by Wade Mickley.

The U.S. Forest Service is planning to intentionally burn sections of the Linville Gorge Wilderness to reduce fuel loads and prevent more catastrophic fires in the future. If allowed, the burns would occur in four or more separate areas at different times and be repeated every three to five years.

Should prescribed burns be conducted in the Linville Gorge Wilderness?

YES

The Linville Gorge Wilderness is a unique and magnificent landscape.  The fact that it is designated as wilderness means that we are obligated to do what we can to protect its natural character and preserve its unique plant and animal communities. One of the ways we can do that is by reintroducing fire to the Gorge.

Linville Gorge is a fire-adapted ecosystem, unique to our region, with several fire-dependent species and plant communities. These plant communities are in decline and two species are federally listed as “threatened”.  This means that fire has played a natural role and has shaped the Gorge throughout its history.

For the last half century, fire has been kept out of the Gorge and every fire that ignites, whether by careless people or lighting strike, has been put out. Not allowing fires to burn has caused significant damage to the wilderness character and the ecology of the area. Without fire, the gorge has unnaturally built up heavy fuel loads of underbrush, and species that inhabit wetter areas have moved in, outcompeting the more native vegetation characterized by mixed hardwood and pine forests.

These fuel loads of underbrush have also left the gorge susceptible to catastrophic wildfires which could devastate human settlements. The intensity of these fires would likely be outside of the natural range causing negative impacts to the forest communities. And, with a changing climate, we are likely to experience extended droughts and warmer temperatures, increasing the risk of catastrophic fire.

Prescribed fires are those set intentionally by professionals under strict conditions that allow fire to burn under control. This approach is necessary to reduce heavy fuel loads of underbrush, thereby reducing the risk of catastrophic wildfires. By reducing fuel loads, we will be able to allow wild fires to burn naturally without human intervention.  This is the best thing for the ecosystem and for wilderness.

If we want to protect wilderness character, maintain the integrity of ecosystems, restore threatened species, prevent catastrophic wildfires, and protect local communities, we need to reintroduce and allow fire to once again play its important role in the Linville Gorge.

Ben Prater is associate executive director for Wild South.

NO

The proposed burning of the Linville Gorge Wilderness is not in the name of preservation. What is going to happen to our aquatic wildlife in the Linville River and its feeder creeks when the loose soil and soot erodes into it? As the Forest Service’s own manual on fire states, “On steep terrain, if post-fire storms deliver large amounts of precipitation, accelerated erosion and runoff can occur, even after a carefully planned prescribed fire.” With the Linville Gorge Wilderness receiving an annual rainfall of 67 inches or more, heavy erosion is sure to happen.

What about our hemlock population? It takes hemlocks 450 years to completely mature to good cone production. With most of the old growth already decimated by adelgid infestation, prescribed burns will kill the hemlocks trying to make a recovery—the same trees that the Forest Service spent thousands in taxpayer dollars to protect less than 10 years ago.

Exposure to relatively low smoke concentrations over many years can contribute to respiratory problems and cancer. In the name of profit, they are going to endanger our health.

Linville Gorge’s rugged terrain – the toughest terrain east of the Rockies – will make it extremely difficult to control fires and will put more firefighters’ lives in jeopardy. Our local businesses stand to lose much needed tourist income. And they are violating the spirit and the letter of the Wilderness Act by manipulating the wilderness with prescribed burns.

At the very least, the Forest Service should conduct an environmental impact study, as required by law, before proceeding. The Linville Gorge Wilderness is a world-class gem. There is no bringing it back once destroyed. As Teddy Roosevelt once said, “Leave it as it is. The ages have been at work on it and man can only mar it.”

Phil Phelan recently hiked 160 miles through the Linville Gorge in five days to raise awareness about the proposed prescribed burns.

25 Comments

  • I see no reason why prescribed burns should not be implemented in Linville Gorge. The US Forest Service already burns thousands of acres a year on the Pisgah and Cherokee National Forest (s). To say that Linville Gorge has evolved without interference is wrong. There is very little of the world that has not been impacted humans, we just don’t notice it in our day to day lives. Just because it’s a Wilderness Area doesn’t mean it hasn’t been impacted. The Linville River is know to suffer pollution from upstream, unnatural areas, subdivision’s, etc. I doubt the people that live in those areas realize or even care about their impact on the Linville Wilderness Area. Invasive, exotic species are also a huge problem in Linville Gorge and these displace many native plants/trees, etc. Again; just because it’s a designated Wilderness Area doesn’t mean it’s pristine and without impacts.

    Neal White   24 Nov 13, 11:36 am

  • “Linville Gorge evolved without man’s interference and should remain that way”
    Please don’t take this the wrong way, but this line of thinking assumes that human occupation of at least the last 10,000 years is not a part of the fire cycle. It is a worldview rooted in ignorance. The reason fires are so intense now in the Gorge is that small fires have been suppressed the last 70 years. Before suppression who do you think extinguished lightning fires in the gorge? God?

    Mike Locke   21 Nov 13, 6:54 am

  • If they are attempting to suppress the current fire in the gorge, I’d say they are not being too successful. Anything they do needs to be around not putting people at risk. Its interesting this “wildfire” happened on a day they were planning and had dispatched pesonnel to perform a prescribed burn. The prescribed burn was cancelled due to wind, but had the wind not been up, one has to assume the prescribed burn would have happened and the deciision makers based on careful study concluded the overall conditions favored such an event. In that case the fire might have been one ridge west of the current one, and probably just as severe. In the gorge there are places you can’t just put people when a fire is happening and give them a sure safe escape route should conditions change, and that is a constant, so any fire prescribed or not has to burn itself out. The fire is really in control, once it starts within the ring (whatever size) PREVIOUSLY built to contain it, to think otherwise is asking to be taught a lesson – again and again and again.

    jdefriess   16 Nov 13, 8:14 am

  • Mike, these are all great questions. The music seems to be coming from an embedded music player on the page. That was the most simple question to answer. The other questions are much more complex. In my opinion, it is difficult to predict how long it will take to restore the Linville Gorge’s ecosystems to a resilient sate where wild fires play their natural role as a disturbance on the landscape. While difficult to predict it is possible to develop adaptive management strategies that rely on intensive research and monitoring. Such strategies allow managers to set goals and objectives while incorporating the uncertainty that is inherent with ecological systems and the dynamics of change. Some might suggest that because there is uncertainty we should do nothing. I would assert that this logic is exactly what has stymied momentum to address climate change and many of the large scale environmental dilemmas of our age. Adaptive management strategies are just that, adaptive, they change as our understanding develops and our information improves. This is exactly why I advocate for an adaptive approach with fire in the Linville Gorge and any ecosystem for that matter. To often agencies apply blanket policies with untested assumptions that leave little to no room for modification. This cannot happen in the Gorge and this is exactly why my organization is involved. We want to ensure a path forward that restores the native biodiversity of the Gorge and protects and improves the wilderness character. We have done at least 50 years worth of damage to the landscape it will take at least as long to repair it. But only time will tell.

    Ben Prater   13 Nov 13, 2:17 pm

  • And that complete inability to contain any fire in an area as harsh, and dangerous to the people fighting it is why so many oppose controlled burns. They will rapidly not be controlled at all, as is shown all too well with the forest service’s track record on fighting fires in the gorge.

    Tim Caddell   13 Nov 13, 10:58 am

  • UPDATE 11/13/13 10am: The Table Rock Fire in Linville Gorge Wilderness is now zero percent contained and has grown to 100 acres in size.

    Ben Prater   13 Nov 13, 10:45 am

  • Prescribed burning, fact or fiction? Interesting that some folks here take an unequivocal stand to burn Wilderness without engaging in common sense or recognizing research that does not agree with their own koolaid ( http://www.nytimes.com/2012/09/18/science/earth/forest-survey-questions-effect-of-prescribed-burns.html?pagewanted=all&_r=2&) . Why not err on the side of the Wilderness Act? Why continue to find reasons for humans to propose improving on nature on that relatively small allocation of forest called Wilderness? It seems that the folks that propose burning forests want to ignore the truth of risk for out of control fire (prescribed burning requires 2 – 3 burns per unit to supposedly accomplish the task), the lack of recognition that after the 2 – 3 burns that the forest returns in 5 – 10 years to be much the same and would need to be burned for the same fictitious justifications from here to eternity. that pre-burned forest can be highly ignitable and provide and increased danger, that prescribed burning produces high levels of formaldehyde, and other toxic levels, that animals are killed or are driven out of their habitat where there may a lack of forage, too much competition, or the dangers of roadways and the human interface, if tat out of control burn goes catastrophic all else is null and void. Would prescribed burns prevented this fire? Do you know that there has been significant fire in the Gorge already and in fact occurring in the same area with no apparent effect?

    Lonnie Crotts   12 Nov 13, 11:19 pm

  • Illogical is a fact. So let me ask you this. If the Forest Service actually adhered to the Wilderness Act, and just left it alone inside the boundary – no prescribed burns, no extinguished fires, how long, in your expert opinion, would it take for the wilderness to return to a natural state? How many fires would burn before it was natural again?

    And what is with this ominous music that plays when I leave a comment?

    Mike Jones   12 Nov 13, 5:44 pm

  • Mike its not an assumption. Even if you feel that it may be a illogical, it is a fact under current USFS policy in Wilderness. The only way wildfires will ever be allowed to burn and not actively and aggressively suppressed is if prescribed fire is used in the near term. Without using prescribed fire we will just see the perpetuation of a cycle of wild fires being actively suppressed as conditions in the Gorge continue to deteriorate and the risk of devastating wild fires only increases.

    Ben Prater   12 Nov 13, 4:44 pm

  • “So for those who oppose prescribed fire to prevent catastrophic wild fires I can only assume you are in favor of fire lines, bulldozers, helicopters, and chainsaws, in and around the Wilderness while 40 firefighters risk their lives.”

    Big assumption. Protect private property if you have to, but I’m against the prescribed burn, and control of the fire in the wilderness area. Just leave it alone!

    Mike Jones   12 Nov 13, 4:27 pm

  • Nobody’s saying to let things burn onto people’s property, or even right up to their property line. There’s plenty of examples of fire crews protecting wilderness/private interface in the event of a wildfire. It is not the same as intentionally burning an entire wilderness. Under that logic, we may as well start burning off every wilderness in the US, since there is some private property nearby every one of them.

    alexis   12 Nov 13, 3:45 pm

  • UPDATE 11/12/13 3pm: The Forest Service is actively suppressing the Table Rock fire. The current policy, weather conditions, and fuel loads give them little option.

    From the USFS Press Release: “Currently, firefighters are creating fire lines to suppress the fire. A Type 3 Incident Command Team has been ordered to suppress the fire and will be in place by the end of tomorrow. This will bring the total number of Forest Service and other firefighters to close to 40. The National Forests in North Carolina Forest Supervisor has approved the use of mechanized equipment (such as leaf blowers and chainsaws) to suppress the wildfire in the wilderness area. The Forest Service will use bulldozers outside the wilderness area. Two helicopters will also help suppress the wildfire.”

    So for those who oppose prescribed fire to prevent catastrophic wild fires I can only assume you are in favor of fire lines, bulldozers, helicopters, and chainsaws, in and around the Wilderness while 40 firefighters risk their lives.

    Ben Prater   12 Nov 13, 3:43 pm

  • If the “Linville Gorge evolved without man’s interference and should remain that way.” then I’m sure that you folks who support that statement would support the USFS if they allowed any fires that occur in the Gorge (natural or man-made) to burn without their intervention or interference. They can use the gravel roads as their fire lines, and keep their employees out of danger. I’m sure the folks that live or own property on the rim would agree with you.

    T Johnson   12 Nov 13, 3:37 pm

  • Wilederness values are under attack. When Aldo Leopold argued for wilderness, one of the key ideas was that willderness would serve as a baseline against managed land. With this burn proposal, that part of the Wilderness mission is compromised. Instead, this land will be subjected to the latest theory/management fad based on inconclusive research. In the end, it comes down to the belief that nature can’t be trusted to manage itself, but Lord Man must be in charge….everywhere.

    alexis   12 Nov 13, 3:25 pm

  • Wilederness values are under attack. When Aldo Leopold argued for wilderness, one of the key ideas was that willderness would serve as a baseline against managed land. With this burn proposal, that part of the Wilderness mission is compromised. Instead, this land will be subjected to the latest theory/management fad based on inconclusive research. In the end, it comes down to the belief that nature can’t be trusted to manage itself, but Lord Man must be in charge….everywhere.

    alexis   12 Nov 13, 3:25 pm

  • UPDATE 11/12/13…I wildfire has started in the Gorge today and 20 firefighters have been deployed to contain the fire to 40 acres. It appears to have started in the Table Rock Picnic Area.

    And Mr. Faulkner, Wild South is a 501c (3) Not for Profit Organization whose mission is to inspire people to enjoy, value, and protect the wild character and natural legacy of the South. We have never received or sought any funding to “promote fires” or “set fires”. The only financial assistance we have ever received for anything specific to the Gorge has been to conduct a project to remove non-native invasive plants along trails in the Gorge utilizing volunteers. This project has been funded by TogetherGreen a foundation established by Audubon and Toyota and the National Forest Foundation who promotes wilderness stewardship.

    Ben Prater   12 Nov 13, 2:48 pm

  • Mr. Prater. I happened to be on the west rim of the gorge (Rockjock Trail) the morning after the 2007 Shortoff fire started. I was hiking with a group. Early in the morning it looked as if the fire could be stopped on Shortoff. We heard a few chainsaws running. Soon that stopped, and it was obvious the fire was spreading quickly. There were necklaces of flame moving over the cliffs and down the side of the mountain. No more sounds of chainsaws running. We had a ringside seat. About 1pm, one helicopter dropped one container of water, left, and we saw him no more. Sure, we were about a mile away and couldn’t see/hear everything, but it was pretty obvious that not a lot was being done to put the fire out, and everyone on the hike mentioned this fact.

    Just my observations, but I’m a firm believer that wilderness should be left to be wild, fire load or not. Hike it, camp in it, watch it evolve, but to burn it is to destroy it.

    Ken

    Ken Crump   12 Nov 13, 1:14 pm

  • So, Mr Prater, does Wild South receive any money to promote fires of any kind? If so, how much has Wild South received in the last twenty years? Are you paid for setting or managing prescribed or controlled burns? If so, how much, when and for what fires?

    William Faulkner   12 Nov 13, 8:31 am

  • Thanks for weighing in on this important debate. I wanted clarify a few things. First, the statement that “fire has been kept out of the gorge” is in fact contradictory considering the recent wild fires over the past few decades. A more appropriate statement is that fire has been “suppressed”, meaning that US Forest Service policy at this time is to actively suppress or “fight” any and all wildfires that ignite in the Gorge. Bottom line, the role of fire as a natural disturbance has been diminished over the past half century and as a result has created the very conditions that caused the large wild fires that had such dramatic impacts on the landscape over the past decade.

    Secondly, prescribed fire would help to promote “naturalness” by bringing the fire prone ecosystems in the Gorge back within their natural range of variation restoring native biodiversity including threatened species that have lost habitat due to fire suppression.

    I would also like to clarify that the position of my organization, Wild South, is that any management within Wilderness is a consideration that must be carefully analyzed and any decision well justified. We assert that prescribed fire is merely a tool to promote resilience and restore a threatened and critically important landscape. Prescribed fire is simply a means to an end and not a long term solution.

    Wild South has been one of the most successful advocates for the designation, protection, and stewardship of Wilderness in the East for the past 20 years. In fact, all of those who are passionate about protecting the Linville Gorge Wilderness should join us as we work to reduce the threat of non-native invasive plants along trails.

    Ben Prater   11 Nov 13, 8:33 pm

  • The idea that the gorge has been unnaturally protected from fire by man is ludicrous. Give me one example of a fire that has been successfully contained in Linville Gorge.

    Todd Ransom   11 Nov 13, 9:56 am

  • The yes article is contradictory, the last wildfires in the gorge were not put out but left to burn. The only place they were fought is when they threatened private land. Which makes this statement true “By reducing fuel loads, we will be able to allow wild fires to burn naturally without human intervention.” because they do that already. Ben said earlier in his article the fires were “put out”, so which is it?
    On this fs website http://www.fs.usda.gov/detail/nfsnc/home/?cid=STELPRDB5407778 they claim less than 1% of prescribed burns “escape”, but yet one did down east and one did near hanging rock sp, where the news article quoted a fire fighter as saying the terrain there was too tough to fight fires. Actually supporting the let it burn position.
    On the weblink above at the bottom they show a photo of the benefit of prescribed fire, “rhodoless woods” but in the back of their very own photo you can see rhod that hasn’t greened out and is standing dead, just like in the woods they have had prescribed near Dobson’s knob. Some hasn’t greened yet, and is providing fuel for a wildfire, or justification to prescribe burn every other year or so.
    If a fire starts in the gorge either set intentionally or natural it will burn until it burns itself out and only be fought if it threatens private land. So I really don’t see a change in policy, just a determination to set fires, fueled by the confidence that the weather can be predicted.

    jdefriess   10 Nov 13, 8:13 am

  • There are several points in the argument for burning that have never held water in my opinion. The argument that it reduces fuel load is just wrong. If you’ve been in the Gorge like I have for over 40 years you can see that. The nature decay of the forest is it’s own eco system. When there have been fires like those from just the 2000 fire forward have created huge amounts of dead and down material … and they want to do this on a regular basis??? Makes no sense. I have noticed the use of Prescribed Burns … a change from what has always been called Controlled Burns. Makes sense because just in the last couple years they’ve proven in NC alone that they can’t control a burn … and they want to burn in the remove rugged cliff areas of Linville Gorge??? IF you can’t control a fire in the flat coast plane area of the state … you’ve got no chance in Linville Gorge. The impact to air quality, damage to the wildlife, the scaring of the area is not worthy of a wilderness. I just read that one of the things they are trying to do in the fire they plan for Dobson Knob in the next few weeks is “The burn will remove woody debris and enhance wildlife habitat by decreasing the amount of mountain laurel and rhododendron. This management practice will allow mast-producing plant species to grow, improving habitat for game and non-game animal species such as turkeys, resident and neo-tropical songbirds, deer and bears.”. That’s about as much hooey as I’ve read in years. That could justify them burning most of western NC to rid us of Laurel and Rhodo! Are you serious? If you have even been in the forested regions of NC, the Smoky Mtn National Forest, or any place wild in our mountains it takes very little to understand just how many creatures thrive in those mountain laurel and rhododendron choked ridges and valleys. Stop trying to justify burning so that you can keep or increase grant monies and keep Linville Gorge a wilderness area as intended. Want to spend money, get a grant to help pick up after the idiots that can’t seem to keep from trashing wild places when they visit. Mr. Faulkner said it well “Linville Gorge evolved without man’s interference and should remain that way.”

    M Hollar   09 Nov 13, 2:29 pm

  • Ben’s statement: “For the last half century, fire has been kept out of the Gorge and every fire that ignites, whether by careless people or lighting strike, has been put out”, is absolutely incorrect. Vast areas of the Gorge have burned because the terrain is not conducive to fires being extinguished. Just stand at Wiseman’s View or Pinnacle and you can see hundreds of acres that have burned in just the last 15 years much of it now covered with scrub pines as thick as dog’s fur. Other areas were scorched so bad that even today very little vegetation grows because all organic matter in the upper soil level was burned away leaving nothing for seedlings to grow in. Linville Gorge evolved without man’s interference and should remain that way.

    William Faulkner   09 Nov 13, 1:23 pm

  • Mr. Prater was a partner in the development of the USDA $4.5 million grant that funds the plan to burn the Linville Gorge Wilderness. The public should know Wild South stands to benefit via contracts provided through this grant. The premise that fire needs to be “reintroduced” to the Linville Gorge is grossly offensive. Mr. Prater should know via his work on the grant and concern for the wilderness that the 12,000 acre Linville Gorge has experienced 3 major fires in recent history. The following is reported by the USFS (http://www.fs.usda.gov/detail/nfsnc/home/?cid=STELPRDB5406212):

    Brushy Ridge Complex Fire, year 2000, abandoned campfire, acres burned: 10,000

    Pinnacle Fire, year 2007, human caused, acres burned: 3,500

    Shortoff Fire, year 2007, lightning caused, acres burned 3,200

    Furthermore, new research is showing that “prescribed” burns do not reduce risks of catastrophic fire in times of drought when catastrophic is most likely to occur, nor do they replicate natural processes: http://www.nytimes.com/2012/09/18/science/earth/forest-survey-questions-effect-of-prescribed-burns.html?pagewanted=all&_r=1&.

    The public should also know that prescribed burns produces toxic releases of formaldehyde, carbon monoxide, acrolein, benzene and respirable particulates.

    The plan to burn the Linville Gorge is clearly in violation of the 1964 Wilderness Act. How can one say that fire needs to be “reintroduced” to the Linville Gorge with this knowledge? Where are the stewards for wilderness?

    Lonnie Crotts
    Blue Ridge Environmental Defense League, Save Linville Gorge Wilderness Chapter
    SaveLGW.org

    Lonnie Crotts   09 Nov 13, 9:10 am

  • Mr. Prater was a partner in the development of the USDA $4.5 million grant that funds the plan to burn the Linville Gorge Wilderness. The public should know that he and Wild South stand to benefit via contracts provided through this grant. The premise that fire needs to be “reintroduced” to the Linville Gorge is grossly offensive. Mr. Prater should know via his work on the grant and concern for the wilderness that the 12,000 acre Linville Gorge has experienced 3 major fires in recent history.

    The following is reported by the USFS (http://www.fs.usda.gov/detail/nfsnc/home/?cid=STELPRDB5406212):

    Brushy Ridge Complex Fire, year 2000, abandoned campfire, acres burned: 10,000

    Pinnacle Fire, year 2007, human caused, acres burned: 3,500

    Shortoff Fire, year 2007, lightning caused, acres burned 3,200

    Furthermore, new research is showing that “prescribed” burns do not reduce risks of catastrophic fire in times of drought when catastrophic is most likely to occur, nor do they replicate natural processes: http://www.nytimes.com/2012/09/18/science/earth/forest-survey-questions-effect-of-prescribed-burns.html?pagewanted=all&_r=1&.

    The public should also know that prescribed burns produces toxic releases of formaldehyde, carbon monoxide, acrolein, benzene and respirable particulates.

    The plan to burn the Linville Gorge is clearly in violation of the 1964 Wilderness Act. How can one say that fire needs to be “reintroduced” to the Linville Gorge with this knowledge? Where are the stewards for wilderness?

    Lonnie Crotts
    Blue Ridge Environmental Defense League, Save Linville Gorge Wilderness Chapter
    SaveLGW.org

    Lonnie Crotts   09 Nov 13, 8:55 am

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